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The trial began in late September 1994, on a brilliant, sunny day five years after the murders. Due to the local publicity surrounding the case, the jurors were chosen in Orlando and then taken to Pinellas County, where they were sequestered for the duration of the trial.

Opening statements were delivered inside a packed fourth-floor courtroom. Presiding over the trial was Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, a no-nonsense judge known for her command of the law and of the lawyers appearing before her. But that morning, as the trial began, people weren't watching the judge. Instead, all eyes were focused on Chandler.

Clad in a dress shirt and khakis, black-rimmed reading glasses perched halfway down his nose, the defendant surveyed the proceedings without a trace of anxiety, projecting an almost breezy indifference. On trial for his life, he sat with a strangely affable smile playing at the corners of his mouth -- a smile that suggested a mixture of mild curiosity and low-grade boredom.

It quickly became apparent that Chandler was giving a performance, making a show of his detachment, telling everyone in the room that he considered himself just another spectator. The fact that the performance was so transparent -- that he so obviously wanted it to be noted -- made it all the more disturbing. What was really happening inside him? Did he see this as some sort of elaborate game?

Doug Crow had no time to worry about such questions. He was too busy giving his opening, outlining the prosecution's case.

"The evidence will show that these three women were murdered in this premeditated fashion by the man" -- here Crow pointed behind him, toward the defendant -- "who sits across from you in the courtroom today, Oba Chandler."

His voice rising with emotion, Crow took the jurors through the evidence that would be presented.

"Using a boat, under apparent cover of darkness," he said, "the killer committed a crime miles out in the open water, where there were no witnesses, save the dead victims, to see or hear or remember what happened. And by using the boat, which the killer then removed and obviously cleaned up, he left no scene for the police to investigate. But the police went backwards, and they began looking at the pattern of this case, and that pattern emerged to them, and what they saw helped them to make a connection. . . ."

Step by step, Crow explained how the investigators had discovered the similarities between the murders and the rape of the Canadian tourist. He explained how her description of her attacker and the handwriting on the brochure had ultimately led the police to Chandler. He explained about the marine phone tolls and what they proved. He also revealed that one witness -- a man who once worked for Chandler -- would testify that, a few hours before the murders, Chandler had told him he had an appointment to "meet some women."

The jurors, Crow promised, would learn all these things for themselves. They would even hear from the Canadian woman. She would take the witness stand and relive the most disturbing day of her life.

"That's an experience she will willingly undergo to give the 12 of you the opportunity to render justice and to reach a verdict that speaks the truth," said Crow.

When his turn came to speak, Fred Zinober, the lead defense attorney, boiled his case down to one basic point. His client, he said, had indeed met Jo, Michelle and Christe on the day of their deaths and had written directions for them on the brochure. But the state, he said, would not be able to prove that Oba Chandler had ever seen the three women again.

"The defense in this case is very straight, very simple. It is simply that they have the wrong man," he said. "And the evidence is going to suggest that they simply have not uncovered anything conclusive or credible that links Oba Chandler to the Rogers homicide."

Zinober did concede that Chandler had met the Canadian woman and had taken her out on his boat. But the defense, he said, would not even try to respond to the contention that Chandler raped her. Chandler, he pointed out, was on trial for the murders, not the rape.

Before the trial was over, Zinober said, the jurors would hear from Oba Chandler himself. He would explain why he was out on the water that night, and he would look each of them in the face and proclaim his innocence.

"Mr. Chandler is going to take the stand, and he is going to face his accusers," said Zinober. "And he is going to let you know that he is not happy about being accused of these crimes and that he did not commit any of these homicides. . . .

"It is that simple."

***

The prosecutors wasted no time.

In the week that followed, they moved quickly through their case, calling as many as 20 witnesses a day. They brought in a handwriting expert to tell about the directions found on the brochure in Jo Rogers' car, and a print analyst to tell about the palm print on the brochure, and the marine phone operators to tell about the calls Chandler made from his boat. They called Kristal Mays, one of Chandler's adult daughters, so she could repeat the statements she heard when he showed up in her hometown of Cincinnati in November 1989, just after police released a composite drawing of the Madeira Beach rapist.

Kristal Mays had not been expecting her father. He arrived in town one day, checked into a motel and called her, asking her and her husband to meet him.They found Chandler anxious and nervous, his room littered with coffee cups and with ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.

"Did he tell you why it was urgent for you to come there and visit and why he came to Cincinnati suddenly and unexpectedly?" asked Crow.

"Not on the phone," she said. "But when we got there, he did."

Mays


CRUCIAL TESTIMONY: Kristal Mays, one of Oba Chandler's daughters, told the jurors that her father had made incriminating statements to her during a visit not long after the murders.

Times file photos (1994) -- MAURICE RIVENBARK


"What did he tell you?"

Mays shifted in the witness stand, not looking at her father across the room.

"He told us he couldn't go back to Florida because they were looking for him for a rape of a woman."

When Mays heard this, she said, she was so disturbed she went into the bathroom. Later, her father apologized for the way he was acting. He needed help. It was already getting cold in Ohio, and he'd had no time to finish packing, and so the next day she bought him a coat.

That evening, when he came to her house for dinner, he made another shocking statement. He told her he also could not return to Florida because he had killed some women.

"He indicated he had killed women?"

"Yes."

Rick Mays, Kristal's husband, was summoned to the courtroom to describe what he remembered from Chandler's visit. Mays recalled going with his wife to the motel and hearing Chandler talk about raping someone in Florida. Later in the visit, during a car ride together, he said, Chandler admitted to being involved with some murders in Florida.

"What was the substance related to you," said Crow, "about his involvement in the murders?"

"That he could not go home because of the murders -- murders of the women in Florida."

"While he was up there, did the defendant say anything to you about what to do if anyone called looking for him?"

"That we haven't saw him."

That same afternoon, the prosecution called three witnesses who had spent time in jail with Chandler while he was awaiting trial; all three testified that they heard him make incriminating statements. One witness said Chandler told him about raping a woman from another country. Chandler, he said, talked of taking the woman far out into the gulf and telling her to "f--- or swim."

"What else did he say?" asked Bob Lewis.

"That the only reason the lady is still around is because somebody was waiting at the boat dock for her -- one of her friends."

Another man testified that he overheard Chandler talking about the Rogers case. Chandler, he said, had been watching a segment of A Current Affair that featured the case and said out loud that if one of the women -- he didn't say which one -- had not resisted, he wouldn't be in jail. A third witness said that during their time together in jail Chandler talked about meeting the Rogers women near Tampa Stadium, giving them directions, then arranging a rendezvous with them later that day at a boat ramp. Once, the witness said, a report on the murders had aired on a TV in their cell pod, and Chandler was watching as the report showed film of the bodies being recovered from the bay.

"Did he make any statement when that picture was shown on TV?" asked Jim Hellickson.

"He said, 'Well, that is something they can't get me for.' He said, "'Dead people can't tell on you,' or 'can't talk.' Something like that."

Night Stories continued  

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